Recent Research on #EmployeeEngagement (Part 1)

The understanding of employee engagement, which has been studied extensively in recent years, has taken on new urgency in the current labor market environment. Organizations that do not understand the fundamentals of employee engagement may find themselves dealing with unmotivated, underappreciated, and dissatisfied employees who may be spending their free time searching for better opportunities. Two recent studies seek to bring order to the vast research on engagement, and to explore the role of employee engagement in the formation of the employee-organization relationship. For purposes of this overview, the definition of the “Utrecht Group” (Wimar Schaufeli and associates) will be used:

A positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind characterized by a sense of vigor towards, dedication to, and absorption in work activities.

The first study, The Meaning, Antecedents and Outcomes of Employee Engagement: A Narrative Synthesis (Bailey et al., 2017), a literature review is performed to answer three questions:

  • How has engagement been defined and theorized?
  • What antecedents are associated with engagement?
  • What evidence is there that engagement is associated with employee morale and performance?

The study begins with a master class in structuring and executing a literature review. Anyone familiar with research in the social sciences will have come across many literature reviews–but this article is unique in the level of description and analysis of the research and review process that is provided. Key to the process is the narrative evidence synthesis method of planning, structured search, evaluation of material against agreed eligibility criteria, analysis and thematic coding, and finally reporting. An initial search resulting in 712,550 records was reduced through this process to 38 items with theoretical/conceptual models; 172 empirical papers; and 4 meta-analyses. The following is a brief recap of discoveries of this analysis.

How has engagement been defined and theorized?

The authors found six headings into which study definitions could be grouped:

  • Personal role engagement: the individual’s cognitive, emotional, and physical expression of the authentic self at work;
  • Work task or job engagement: the Utrecht Group’s definition of engagement quoted above;
  • Multidimensional engagement: a distinct and unique construct consisting of cognitive, emotional and behavioral components that are associated with individual role performance;
  • Engagement as a composite attitudinal and behavioral construct: research featuring measures of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral engagement;
  • Engagement as management practice: an emerging field of inquiry with no firmly established definition or conceptualization; and
  • Self-engagement with performance: defined as the individual’s sense of responsibility for and commitment towards performance.

The predominant definition of engagement is that of the Utrecht Group (noted above) which was adopted in 86% of the studies reviewed. After the definitions, five principal theoretical frameworks utilized in the studies were discussed:

  • The Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) framework was utilized in 38% of the studies reviewed. The JD-R framework distinguishes between resources (job-related or personal) and job demands. Resources energize employees and lead to engagement, while demands which require additional effort can lead to disengagement, and thus, negative outcomes.
  • In Social Exchange Theory (SET) relationships between employees and employers are based on reciprocity: when employees feel they are being treated well, they respond with higher levels of engagement.
  • Conservation of Resources theory suggests that employee engagement can be driven by the provision of resources;
  • Broaden-and build theory argues that engagement can occur when individuals experience positive emotions, which create the space for a broader range of thought-action repertoires; and finally,
  • Kahn’s engagement theory, which is based on the premise that engagement is influenced by meaningfulness of work, psychological safety, and experienced availability.

Antecedents of Engagement

The authors reviewed 155 empirical studies of antecedents to engagement, and found five main headings:

  • Individual Psychological States: the most studied attributes included self-efficacy, resilience, and personal resources were found to be positively associated with engagement.
  • Experienced job-design-related factors: multiple studies showed positive associations between job resources (supervisory and colleague support, feedback, and autonomy) and engagement.
  • Perceived Leadership and Management: multiple studies found a positive association between transformational leadership and engagement.
  • Individual perceptions of organizational and team factors: perceived organizational support, organizational identification, and team-level climate and communication were shown to be positively associated with engagement.
  • Organizational interventions or activities: some studies noted associations between training and development programs and engagement.

Outcomes of Engagement

The outcomes of engagement were explored under two headings, Performance and Morale. Not surprisingly, ample evidence exists in multiple studies demonstrating the positive relationship between engagement, better performance, and morale. The most critical conclusion of this meta-study is that evidence suggests that engagement is associated most strongly with job satisfaction and organizational commitment.  Specific recommendations supported by the author’s analysis include:

  • Job designs that allow for autonomy and feedback on performance;
  • Ensuring that workers have sufficient and appropriate resources;
  • Leadership that is positive and authentic; and
  • Enhancing individual resilience and personal resources.

Furthermore, there is some limited evidence that interventions can positively impact engagement levels, and that there may be ways for employers to develop and enhance engagement. Evidence on this last point is limited, however, and it is hoped that interventions to improve engagement will be the focus of future studies.

In a future blog post, I’ll be recapping the findings from the Eldor and Vigoda-Gadot article noted below.

References:

Bailey, C., Madden, A., Alfes, K., & Fletcher, L. (2017). The Meaning, Antecedents and Outcomes of Employee Engagement: A Narrative Synthesis. International Journal of Management Reviews, 19(1), 31–53. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijmr.12077

Eldor, L., & Vigoda-Gadot, E. (2017). The nature of employee engagement: rethinking the employee–organization relationship. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 28(3), 526–552. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585192.2016.1180312

Balancing the Job Demands-Resources Model Equation

I had noted in an earlier post that the Schaufeli’s Job Demand-Resources model was one that I wanted to come back to, to understand better. The model is straightforward: it states that work engagement results from the motivating influence of resources. Resources are bucketed two ways: job resources, meaning those resources that help achieve work goals, reduce demands, or stimulate growth and development; and personal resources, which include personal characteristics related to resiliency, such as optimism, self-efficacy, and emotional stability (W.B. Schaufeli, 2014). According to the model, these resources foster work engagement. On the other side of the model (or the equation, as I am thinking of it) stands job demands, that is, those aspects of the job that require sustained effort, such as work overload, time pressure, role conflict, or the demands of bureaucracy. These demands exhaust the employee, and can lead to burnout. On the positive side, however, demands that have the potential to promote mastery, personal growth, or future gains have the potential to increase work engagement. To help me understand the model, I drew it out:

JDR Model

As demands in my own work environment have been increasing, and as my team and I have struggled with increasing demands (both workload and bureaucracy, that is, red tape), I have had new insight into the model: as I noted above, I now see the model as an equation that must be kept in balance to maintain a steady state of engagement. In other words,  every new demand must be balanced by a new resource.

What are resources? More team members are sometimes the solution, but not always, depending on the nature of the demands, and, of course, the budget. Other resources described in academic literature include  job control, feedback, social support, and opportunities for learning (Schaufeli, Bakker, & Van Rhenen, 2009) The presence of these resources are motivational, and studies have shown the absence of these resources to lead to stress. In addition to these, though, another study found evidence supervisor support, innovativeness, appreciation, and organizational climate were important job resources (Bakker, Hakanen, Demerouti, & Xanthopoulou, 2007).

One takeaway here is the importance of supervisor support. Research has shown that supervisor support may alleviate the influence of job demands on strain because supervisors’ appreciation and support puts demands in another perspective (Bakker et al., 2007). Interestingly, Bakker’s research also indicates that job resources are particularly relevant under highly stressful conditions. My personal takeaway is to hone my coaching skills—I have  coached associates for years, but with a better understanding of how high quality supervisor support can help balance the JDR equation, I know I need to be sure my skills are in peak form.

Resources: 

 

Bakker, A. B., Hakanen, J. J., Demerouti, E., & Xanthopoulou, D. (2007). Job resources boost work engagement, particularly when job demands are high. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 274–284.

Schaufeli, Wilmar B. (2014). What is engagement? In Employee engagement in theory and practice (pp. 15–35). New York: Routledge.

Schaufeli, Wilmar B., Bakker, A. B., & Van Rhenen, W. (2009). How changes in job demands and resources predict burnout, work engagement, and sickness absenteeism. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(7), 893–917.

Toxic Culture (MB#2)

A recent article (Wall Street Analyst Shreds Kraft Heinz’s Culture in Harsh Stock Downgrade) got me thinking about how organizational cultures can become toxic. Having an org culture that is recognized as bad in some way clearly costs, both in terms of turnover and negative reaction in the marketplace. One analyst identified a risk to Kraft-Heinz’s ability to innovate, due to a culture that results in high turnover. The analyst went on to downgrade the company’s stock, which immediately impacted the company’s stock valuation. The trigger to turnover here is cited as the excessive workload, which gets back to the Job Demands-Resources model that I mentioned in a previous post. Kraft-Heinz selects high performers, and promotes them quickly, but then loses them because of the staggering work load.

I wonder to what extent the JDR model can be used to understand other poor-performing or toxic cultures. Does a bad organizational culture always ultimately come back to the JDR model? If there is something wrong with the balance of job and personal resources relative to the job demands, it seems like the result must be the degradation of culture. But is it enough to restore the right balance of resources and demands? Is righting the balance enough to improve the organizational culture?

Quick note on the JDR Model (MB#1)

One of the challenges in the Northwestern MSLOC program is digesting all of the models that are thrown at us in quick succession. Some (very few!) models make immediate sense, and I strive to incorporate them into my work immediately. Some don’t make sense at all, or seem unconvincing, and those I set aside for the future. But others, like Schaufeli’s Job Demands-Resources model, make sense, but I know I need more time to fully digest the model and make sense of it. I’ve had plenty of time to think about it, and recently, wildly escalating job demands, driven by a recent restructure, have really made this model come home to me. My challenging work environment has driven me to a little insight—seeing the model as an equation—that I’ll write about in another post.

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